Sunday, 17 January 2016

A medieval cradle in Brussels

 The cradle of Philip the Handsome, made around 1478.

There are not much medieval cradles that have survived. Most of them concern the ornate ceremonial (estate) cradles. One of the surviving late medieval ceremonial cradles can be found in the Hallenpoort, one of the surviving medieval city gates, in Brussels (Belgium). The cradle has been known as that of Emperor Charles V, but the arms on the cradle depict that of his grandparents Maximilian I and Maria of Burgundy, so it is nowadays understood that it should have been the cradle made for Philip the Handsome (to become King of Castile and the father of Charles V) and his sister Margaret of Austria. This dates the cradle to June 1478, when Phillips was born in Bruges, Belgium; Margaret was born in January 1480.

Philip the Handsome and Margaret of Austria by Pieter van Coninxloo, c 1493-5. 
Betrothal diptych, oil on oak panels, each 23.8 x 16.5cm. National Gallery, London, UK. 

The cradle is made from oak and has a length of 1.45 m and a width and height of 73.5 and 77.5 cm, respectively. It is composed of boards held within a frame without mitred corners and with elaborate mouldings attached to the frame. The sides and ends have a horizontal division and there is a railing above the sides of cradle box. The corner posts extend above and below the box to support the railing and two open tracery panels  below. These tracery panels are at the ends only and serve as decorative sled on which the cradle can rest when not slung between the uprights. At the top of the ends also a (tracery?) panel existed, but only the grooves for it remain. The corner posts are each carved with a pair of buttresses, which likely would have reached higher as they are now. The box was originally double walled, presumably to give a good finish to the inside, but the (original) inner skin is almost entirely missing. The rounded bottom of the box has been restored with modern oak boards.

Left photo: The other side of the cradle. Much of the woodwork is renewed (the light-coloured oak); a few traces of the painting can be seen. Right photo: The underside of the cradle is rounded, but also  renewed.

The front and back ends of the cradle feature the double M (for Maria and Maximilian) on a gilded background.

 The corner posts where some parts are sawn off and an empty groove for a now missing top panel.

The (gilded - some traces can be seen) bottom panel with open tracery work. 
Some nails or dowels used to fix the panel to the post can be seen on the left.

The cradle used to swing between uprights, which also have not survived, although the iron spigots are still attached to the cradle. Each spigot is set in a circular sex-foil rose with a central domed boss. Also on one side of the cradle several staples were set into the railing. It is possible that these were used to attach a parver (a pavillion type canopy) to the cradle.

Left photo: The iron sex-foil rose spigot, where the cradle used to swing between the uprights. 
Right photo: the moulded rails are nailed to fix the panels.

This side has some staples set into the railing, probably to attach a domed canopy (sparver) to it. As can be clearly seen in these photos, the buttresses of the corner posts are sawn off and the groove for the top panel is empty.

Also much of the decoration has been lost. The entire surface of the cradle was once covered with paintings in colours (black and red) and gold leaf. Decoration for such state cradles used to be done by master painters (and more expensive that the construction of the cradle itself), which is evident by the quality of the decoration. The end panels are decorated with initials M and M (for Maria and Maximilian) intertwined with thistles and holly. One of the low panels on the sides contains the device of Maximilian 'HALT MAS IN ALLEN DINGEN' [moderation in all things]. The larger panel on the side contain remains of heraldic decorations with eagles and heraldic shields.

The Burgundian heritage is clearly shown by the sparkling fire-strikers. 
The first letters (HALT) of the device of Maximilian can also be clearly seen.

The gilded panel on the side showing the same arms as the panel of Philip the Handsome by Pieter van Coninxloo shown above. On the left side the imperial eagle is shown.

According to Penelope Eames, a furniture historian, noble families employed two cradles: the estate cradle - such as this one - in which the infant was displayed and in use during the day. But furthermore, a night cradle, that was much lower and simpler in construction, and in which the baby normally lay. The bills for the cradles ordered by Margaret of Flanders, Duchess of Burgundy in 1403 give some idea on the amount of money that was spend by the nobility on the 'baby-room'.

To master Jehan Du Liège, carpenter, living in Paris, for 2 cradles 1 of state and the other for rocking and feeding the said infant and for 2 stands for the said cradles; two tubs of riven oak for bathing the infant, and 2 round cases for keeping them in, 36 francs; and for a white wood case for the state cradle in order that it may be carried with greater safety from Paris to Arras ... 2 francs .... To Christofle Besan, painter and 'varlet de chambre' to the Duke of Burgundy, for painting and gilding with fine, burnished gold the large above mentioned state cradle for the said infant with the arms of Seigneur de Rethel and with those of the said Damoiselle de Rethel; and for a panel with the head of Our Lady to be placed behind the infant's head 50 francs.

If you compare this amount of money spend on the cradle itself, to the more than 800 francs spend only on the coverlets (more than 800 francs) and a sparver (40.5 francs), you might think that the itself cradle was very cheap.

The inside of the cradle. It would have been covered with more expensive 
materials than the cost of making this cradle. 

Sources used:

  • Penelope Eames (1977). Furniture in England, France and the Netherlands from the twelfth to the fifteenth century. Furniture History, volume XIII.  
  • Franz Windisch-Graetz (1982) Mobel Europas I - von der Romanik bis zur Spatgotik. Klinkhardt and Biermann, Munchen, Germany, ISBN 3781402126.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Awesome shots. I particularly like the underside, with the gothic support/runners. They split exactly where you'd predict.